Will Letter Grades Survive?

Under pressure from an unprecedented constellation of forces—from state lawmakers to prestigious private schools and college admissions offices—the ubiquitous one-page high school transcript lined with A–F letter grades may soon be a relic of the past.

In the last decade, at least 15 state legislatures and boards of education have adopted policies incentivizing their public schools to prioritize measures other than grades when assessing students’ skills and competencies. And more recently, over 150 of the top private high schools in the U.S., including Phillips Exeter, Choate, and Dalton—storied institutions which have long relied on the status conveyed by student ranking—have pledged to shift to new transcripts that provide more comprehensive, qualitative feedback on students while ruling out any mention of credit hours, GPAs, or A–F grades.

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27 thoughts on “Will Letter Grades Survive?

  1. That’s an interesting article. I suppose I better start paying attention to this stuff now because 9th grade is only 2.5 years away.

  2. Real talk: one part of me thinks this is great. The other, lazier, part of me wants to die at the thought of having to give “more comprehensive, qualitative feedback.” I can barely write enough comments on papers now.

    1. Wendy said:

      “Real talk: one part of me thinks this is great. The other, lazier, part of me wants to die at the thought of having to give “more comprehensive, qualitative feedback.” I can barely write enough comments on papers now.”

      Yeah.

      I feel like it makes more sense to have several detailed recommendation letters for the kid toward the end of their school career rather than having all teachers give qualitative evaluations of all kids every year. And that way you could cover not just academic work, but also the child’s extracurricular involvement and volunteering.

      1. Another thing–there’s no reason to throw out letter/number grades in favor of qualitative evaluations when you can have both by doing letter/number grades AND recommendation letters.

  3. My child’s school has gone to a version of this for progress reports. Instructors have a drop-down box of 5-8 fixed comments from which to choose to give “qualitative feedback” for each student. I foresee a similar situation in which the choices switch from A-F to “surpassed/achieved/did not achieve the learning goals in this course” etc. Given the fetish for data-driven decision making in the upper echelons of educational administration, I’d be surprised if schools don’t turn the qualitative feedback into something quantifiable.

  4. Christiana said:

    “My child’s school has gone to a version of this for progress reports. Instructors have a drop-down box of 5-8 fixed comments from which to choose to give “qualitative feedback” for each student. I foresee a similar situation in which the choices switch from A-F to “surpassed/achieved/did not achieve the learning goals in this course” etc.”

    Yeah–basically the kind of grades my kids got in elementary school.

  5. The point of private school grading systems seems to be to confuse college admissions officers. (See Michele Hernandez’s book, “A is for Admission” for examples.) Have the 150 schools really “pledged,” or are they sponsoring a research effort that might pay off in perceived virtue on their part?

    As it is, the reports we’ve gotten in the past from our kids’ private schools have had narrative feedback of the relevant qualities. I’m just not persuaded that trying to quantify subjective qualities like creativity makes any sense, or has any utility.

  6. Note who is doing this – the top private schools. This doesn’t mean this is actually a better way (it doesn’t mean it isn’t); it just means it is another way of separating themselves. Do you think the public school teacher with 30 kids in a class has time for this?

    1. Tulip said:

      “Note who is doing this – the top private schools. This doesn’t mean this is actually a better way (it doesn’t mean it isn’t); it just means it is another way of separating themselves. Do you think the public school teacher with 30 kids in a class has time for this?”

      Right.

  7. I don’t expect this change anything for most classes, since much of this is what I call false quantification anyway. Does it matter if I give a painting an A grade or if I arbitrarily decide that it is worth 100 points and you got 97? Yet, there are too many people who will then think that a 97 is actually different from a 95 in a meaningful way. If I just said, that is an A painting and that is A painting, then they don’t differentiate (as it should be if my arbitrary scores were that close). Same with papers, rubric or not.

    Sadly, I agree Christiana, they will find a way to attach *numbers*. Because that’s like scientific or something. end sarcasm/

    All, what is the difference between using A-F and using phrases like “exceeds expectations” or “meets expectations”? I always thought the letter grades were just shorthand for that kind of phrase anyway.

  8. The private schools are hating having to rank their students and have drifted to the point where they are giving out practically all As and A-‘s. They have no incentive to rank their students and most of their students are doing pretty well in the coursework, given the ability to choose classes, use tutors, qualitative assessments, and commitment.

    In the private school’s defense — and BI commenting here said it once, describing grading her college students at an elite school, that there is the occasionally extraordinary student, but many excellent students. Differentiating among the students means showing a pattern of different skills, in which one student might be a great contributor in class, another a great writer, another a fabulous researcher (and, I’m paraphrasing what I remember of BI’s comment). So a grade, that tries to combine those characteristics into one evaluation is not going to reflect the student and is prone to bias (of which characteristic a particular evaluator might find more important, or easier to score, or . . . .).

    I think the (potentially legitimate) difference between the grade and using the “meet expectations” is that you assess a skill, and not overall performance in a class. I think the schools want it because it requires a learning curve to understand, allows schools to use the “average range of 25-75%”, which might have been, in the old days, a C-B instead of excluding it from their assessment, as they do now, and because it benefits schools that have the manpower to do more extensive assessment.

    1. bj said,

      “The private schools are hating having to rank their students and have drifted to the point where they are giving out practically all As and A-‘s.”

      Our kids’ private school has a valedictorian, but refuses to rank the rest of the seniors, as the classes are small (around two dozen kids per high school class). They say that they give a lot of non-As, but that colleges understand their standards. I think that’s certainly true in the case of Hometown U. and probably some other TX colleges, but may be over-optimistic elsewhere. C somehow got a 98 in precalculus and a 98 in physics this last term, but really sweated getting a 92 in @#$%^&* history–but I think that may just be the history teacher.

      It is true that the median is very high, especially in the high school. In the lower school, I felt there were a lot more average middle class families, but in high school, I feel like you can’t throw a rock without hitting a doctor’s kid or an orthodontist’s kid.

      One thing that comes to mind is that if there’s a greater variety of grades given, it may be easier for kids to figure out where they really shine. If you get As in every subject just like all your friends, it may be hard to figure out where you’re actually special.

    2. “The private schools are hating having to rank their students and have drifted to the point where they are giving out practically all As and A-‘s.”

      Is that true at Exeter? When I was there, Exeter was distinctive for holding the line and having meaningful grades which used the whole spectrum from A to D. In contrast, grading at Yale was a joke, where the spectrum ranged from A to B (at that time, they had eliminated pluses and minuses), and you had to be a real slacker to get very many B’s. (I certainly managed my share.) It would have been almost impossible to have a GPA below 3.

      1. Exeter’s college profile manages to have even less comparative info than my kiddos school, which recently dropped information on grade distributions, so I’m guessing they have not held the line. But seeing the distribution is the only way to tell.

      2. I agree about Yale’s grading system. As a TA, the only C I ever gave was to a celebrity’s child who was sweet but not that smart. (I won’t say who this was, but it wasn’t a president’s kid.) I got complaints when I would give a B+ on a paper.

        I can’t imagine the no-grades thing will really work, at least outside the elite schools – that is, I don’t think anyone but private schools will give completely non-quantifiable grades, or that anyone but upper-tier colleges will be able to work with these squishy transcripts well. At my university, a lot of our scholarships are given based on a grid, some formula of GPA plus ACT or SAT, and I believe this is mostly true for admissions. How many more admissions officials would you need to evaluate transcripts like this? Which colleges could afford to spend that much more money on Admissions?

  9. There’s a discussion of the initiative, the “mastery transcript” at college confidential that is quite interesting. The 150 schools have certainly not signed on to giving up letter grades. I think what they’ve signed on to is quite vague and involves some kind of commitment to more comprehensive assessments.

  10. As a product of New Jersey public schools and the partner of a teacher in a public high school on the rural edge of a suburb, I’m suspicious of the “mastery transcript” movement. Don’t those elite private high schools enroll more than a few of the George W. Bushes of the world, the types of students who would have squeaked by with a “gentleman’s C” in days of yore but whose affluent parents now, in an age of grade inflation, see themselves as “customers” paying for a reliable conduit to a prestigious college? I simply don’t believe that most of the students at these elite private high schools are so equally exceptional as to be indistinguishable on paper, or that the sorts of schools pushing for this change have the best interests of public-school kids at heart. (On the Mastery Transcript Consortium website, they suggest that the new way of doing things could eventually trickle down to the rest of us, if only we change a ton of pesky laws governing public education.) All I see is another system that elite schools, affluent parents, and for-profit admissions coaches would quickly learn to game, since it would be a product of their own social milieu, with its inherent priorities, interests, and biases.

    I wonder if schools could begin to address these problems by destigmatizing B’s and C’s and making them mean something again? Quantitative grades have obvious drawbacks, but they still could be made more useful than they currently are. Besides, overwhelmed college admissions counselors would probably, over time, use the “mastery transcript” to quantify and rank prospective students anyway.

    1. I think you’ll find that Exeter (assuming that is what you mean by an elite private high school) is like HYP these days, and it enrolls very few dull normal, socially acceptable, gentlemen’s C types. The most noticeable difference is that Exeter doesn’t have Asian quotas, so it’s more Asian than the Ivies. I’m not sure how the grading system works these days, though.

      1. Harvard has 22.2% Asian-Americans; Exeter separates Asian-Americans from Asians, but if you combine those to categories, Exeter is pretty much even with Harvard, 23% (Asian, 10%, Asian Am, 13%).

        Harvard does have a higher percent of Hispanics, African-Americans, and Native Americans than Exeter, though. +5.6% African-American, +3.6% Hispanic, and 1.5% more Native Americans.

        So, to the extent that Harvard has an Asian quota, one might presume that Exeter has one, too, and depending on the international student breakdowns, might actually have a smaller quota.

        What does appear to be the case is that there are a higher percent of white students at Exeter, compared to Harvard (so, potentially, Exeter has a white quota that’s higher than Harvard’s). The higher underrepresented minority numbers of Harvard result in fewer students who are not identified as URMs or Asian/American.

    2. I agree that the quality of education at Exeter is probably excellent (though I would neither cite the educational level of their faculty or their average SAT scores as evidence). And, I think that “gentleman’s c’s” are accomplished through class selection these days, rather than either accepting a c on the transcript or grading average students highly.

      I think the goal of the mastery transcript is to collectively put elites like Exeter and its ilk (my kid’s school is part of the consortium, though they still clearly give letter grades, though potentially ranging from the B+ to A spectrum) into their own category, separated from public schools and potentially upstart privates, and to get all the other elite schools to agree to the disarmament.

      I would love to see the grade spectrum return to A-C with the work hard enough that excellent students would have to work for their A’s. But I don’t think it’s going to happen because the range of abilities is broad enough and the effect of intense work (often legitimately by the student) and sometimes assistance (both legitimate and illegitimate) is too great. Let’s take an example of a class that assigns a lot of reading. There are kids who will do that reading fairly effortlessly; there are others who will have to spend hours doing it, but who can still do the reading. Then, you create a school environment where the kids in the second group are giving up sleep in order to get the A, which they understand. One of the goals of the mastery transcript, in my opinion, is to make it hard for the kids to understand how they are being judged (true now, too, where one of those kids might end up with an A, spending 1 hour reading, the other with an A- with 2 hours reading, but will have different letters of recommendation). But, what they don’t want is to have that second kid spending 5 hours reading to get the A instead of the C.

    3. “All I see is another system that elite schools, affluent parents, and for-profit admissions coaches would quickly learn to game, since it would be a product of their own social milieu, with its inherent priorities, interests, and biases.”

      ^This^. All the while talking about how much more inclusive this method is.

      1. Tulip said,

        “^This^. All the while talking about how much more inclusive this method is.”

        Right. Because ain’t nobody got the time to figure out what a narrative report card from a 2,000 kid public high school means.

      2. I third the “this.” Also, we have tons and tons of non-elite universities that will have to dedicate many more resources to understanding the “games” that are being played with longer, more complex transcripts. If you are a public university that admits 50 or 60 percent of your applicants, you mainly need to know whether a student can do well enough to get by – graduate with a C average, at least. It seems like it would be much harder to make that determination if you removed all quantitative data from the mix.

        “Mastery” is not a bad thing to assess, especially for basic math and reading skills – which a huge portion of our students lack – but a) I’d like to see this put in quantitative terms; and b) those high schools that can assess mastery well are probably the ones that do an excellent job of getting students to master the skills. I suspect the high schools that do a bad job of teaching will be unlikely to churn out great assessments. Or – maybe this is a better way to think about it – the ones that teach student populations that generally have trouble mastering these skills should be spending time on teaching them rather than developing a fancy new system of evaluating whether or not they taught them.

  11. Looking at the example of current thinking on the Mastery.org website: http://mastery.org/a-new-model/

    I don’t have any confidence that teachers will be able to assess all the realms in which they are supposed to grade a student. On some, i.e. leadership, ethical decision making, and creativity, I would bet the kids who score lowest on those criteria would be the most likely to be creative, ethical and possess leadership skills, but not likely to be compliant with teachers’ wishes.

    It would be interesting to let other students grade their peers on those qualities, though. I’m sure they have a better view of their peers, particularly their ambitious peers.

    But really the concept as currently explained is nebulous enough that it could mean anything you want it to mean. I do like the proposal that content will not be standardized across schools. (/sarc)

    The end effect of such report cards would be to make decision making easier for college admissions officials. Input test scores and whether the student needs financial aid. Check the report card to see if he’s a serial killer. If the report card attests to his not attacking anyone in the view of teachers, you’re good to go.

    And if you think I’m too cynical, I submit that Early Decision, as practiced by “test optional” colleges, should make anyone cynical. Add in college athletic recruiting, in which star athletes often know in Sophomore year or earlier where they’re going to college, and, well, I just don’t buy the Mastery stuff. In effect it looks like a way for a school to step away from the nasty contentious business of grading students. If put into practice I look forward to the New Yorker cartoons.

  12. ” In effect it looks like a way for a school to step away from the nasty contentious business of grading students.” I am not certain anyone is contending otherwise. As a homeschooler who avoided grades entirely until around sophomore year of high school, I was pleasantly surprised this movement started to gain traction at just the right time for us. We offered a transcript that was a mixture of mastery grades and grades assigned by third parties, with the transcript clearly identifying which were which. As homeschoolers, we were somewhat concerned as to how it would be received, but, as it turns out, we appear to have been selling the flavor of the moment.

  13. My eldest kid goes to a public alternative high school that has no letter grades. Each quarter, the kids write a self evaluation about each class (following guidelines about what to measure). The teachers write a response to each evaluation. They get 2 days off every quarter to write the evaluations.

    I’ve found it to be a phenomenal way to measure improvement, identify strengths, and suggest next steps. The self-evaluation part also works well (at least for my kid.) I don’t miss letter grades at all – not in the slightest.

    She’s applying to college now, so we’ll see how this pans out. So far, all the admissions officers have assured us it won’t count against her. (and may even help). But we’ll see….do they have time to actually read a full narrative transcript?

    (My youngest goes to the traditional high school and easily gets all-As. I have much less feedback on what he is learning and how he is doing in this scenario. All I know is that he takes tests well.)

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